Every once in a great while, a low budget film makes a tremendous impact at the Cannes Film Festival. Tim Blake Nelson's film, The Grey Zone, was one such film. Unfortunately, like most Cannes films, the movie did not make much money. It was released only in Los Angeles and New York, along with a few more art-film houses in major cities. Fortunately for us, the movie was recently released on DVD, allowing for a much larger audience than would be usually be possible.
The director, Tim Blake Nelson is hardly well known in Hollywood. He is probably best known as Delmar, the IQ deficient companion to George Clooney in the hilarious film, O' Brother, Where art thou? However, Nelson began carving a name for himself when he directed his two previous credits, Eye of God and O. The latter film was a critical and commercial success, which permitted Nelson to stray into more serious subject matters, as is the case with The Grey Zone.
The film itself is deeply disturbing. It chronicles the real life story of a prisoner uprising at the Auschwitz concentration camp in the final years of World War II. The story follows the lives of several men and women, and their often regrettable struggle to survive during the holocaust. Many men were employed by the Nazis as "Sonderkommandos." These men were given extra accommodations - including food and wine - in return for dedicated service to the Nazis. At the end of three or four months (depending on the quality of their service), each group of sonderkommandos was exterminated with the rest of the victims.
These groups of men were responsible for several of the most grisly jobs at Auschwitz. They prepared the gas chambers by white washing over the stories written by marks and scratches left on the walls by a multitude of victims who were gassed there. These men also were responsible for shepherding fellow Jews into the death chambers calmly, by telling them that there was nothing to fear from their "shower." After the extermination was complete, the men were then responsible for the "recycling" of the important resources from the bodies of the victims, including gold teeth and hair. Lastly, the men were responsible for "destroying the evidence," by burning the victims in the infamous ovens of Auschwitz.
While most of these men struggled with the terrible implications of their service, many reasoned that they were only doing what was necessary to survive, albeit for just a little longer. Many of the men chose to plan a rebellion, not to escape, but to destroy the ovens. Nelson does a wonderful job of displaying the inner turmoil these men faced, along with several other Jewish women who were also employed by the Nazis.
The film takes an interesting turn when one of the Jewish men finds a 14 year-old girl still breathing following a gassing. Thus, the men are faced with a terrible dilemma. Should they allow the girl to be burned alive? Or should they risk everything, including the rebellion, to save the life of one young girl?
The cast included stellar performances from many well-known and rising stars in Hollywood. The film starred David Arquette, Steve Buscemi, Mira Sorvino and Natasha Lyonne as some of the struggling sonderkommandos. Harvey Keitel also gives a remarkable performance as one of German leaders.
This film cannot be taken lightly. While not having the budget of other films concerning the Holocaust (like Schindler's List or The Pianist), this film is equally disturbing. Perhaps what is most troubling of all is that, unlike those films, this story has no poignant ending. The end of the film leaves us with a somber realization that for most subjects of Auschwitz, there was no happy ending.
All being said, this DVD will bother you. It is meant to. However, it will bother you so much that you will not be able to leave without waiting through the story's outcome. Although it is does not come with many added features we come to expect in DVDs, it does include a documentary concerning the validity of the screenplay. This will help bring the historical impact of this story to life. This film is recommended to anyone not afraid of the truth, in all of its horrible glory.